About the time I was learning to read with “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” Charlie Cain started his career as a Michigan journalist.
As I quizzed Mom about the strange symbols on wooden blocks, Cain made contacts, wrote stories and launched a distinguished career for one of Michigan’s largest and most-read newspapers.
Last month, after 30-plus years on the job, Cain’s was unceremoniously let go as The Detroit News’ Lansing bureau chief, becoming the latest casuality in the contracting world of traditional state government news coverage.
I’m told that once upon a time, the Lansing Capitol press corps was a big deal. In the early 1980s, the News and Detroit Free Press had up to 11 reporters (a piece) hanging around the big white dome. Booth Newspapers — the parent of newspapers in Grand Rapids, Jackson, Flint, etc. — had a huge bureau. Channel 4 in Detroit had a gregarious personality named Tom Green running around. Channel 7 had a reporter. Channel 2 sent someone up regularly.
There was The Associated Press, UPI. Shoot, even the Lansing State Journal used to care about the Capitol, if you can believe that. At a time before e-mail and faxes, state government actually hired someone to manage the press room. He called reporters when press conferences were happening so nobody missed a story.
The press corps had power. When a ticked-off Gov. John Engler tried to shut down the coveted Capitol press room, the reporters banded together in a united front and stopped it.
When I came to Lansing in 2001, the press corps’ retreat was well under way. The decimated corps must have looked like a rag-tag army in comparison. Nobody, outside of the Michigan Public Radio duo, was using the press room anymore.
A framed collage of pictures from the days of yore — reporters making funny faces, laughing, doing work — hung on the wall, warping. The boxes where PR types leave press releases for reporters hadn’t been cleaned out for weeks.
Since ’01, the AP has gone down from four to three reporters. The News went from three longtime correspondents of the Capitol to one. The Free Press discontinued the weekly column from its two respected correspondents. The Journal went from two reporters to nearly a year now without bothering with that big white building six blocks away.
Booth went from a Lansing bureau of at least four reporters to one. Detroit television media seem to make it to the capital city when they’re lost.
The person who knows more about Lansing than anyone, Tim Skubick, was cut from Lansing’s TV 10 and the Lansing State Journal. Budget concerns were being cited both times.
The resulting state government coverage has been spotty, at best. Those needing to know the daily drama of state government pay for MIRS and Gongwer, a pair of daily, subscription-based reports.
Longtime Lansing sage and public relations guru Roger Martin told me the drip-drip demise of traditional journalism isn’t coming from a lack of interest from editors, reporters or readers. The big dogs in 21st century media simply can’t pay for good coverage.
At a time when readers expect Google news alerts any time the pope passes gas, it’s a struggle for traditional hometown newspapers to find a way to make a buck. Yahoo has taught us to expect any piece of information we want for free.
“Traditional media is in retreat or dying, depending on who you talk to,” Martin said. “It’s dangerous and sad at the same time.”
Keep these facts in mind: Three dozen newspapers are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Ann Arbor News is converting to a slimmed-down twiceweekly publication. The number of Facebook accounts by people older than 35 doubled between January and March this year.
The new media is swooping in to pick at the news carnage, but what kind of journalistic background does Joe “Tweeter” have?
Political blogs are great tools to stoke the fires of the true-believers. They’re not an objective source for news, nor do they pretend to be.
Until someone figures out how to make money hiring real journalists to cover state government, the retreat will continue. Posting a story on the Internet is the easy part. Paying the journalist to research the story and write the story is the hard part.
In the meantime, state leaders are talking about a new graduated income tax, a reformed gas tax, a new sales tax on services, the early release of 3,500 prisoners, cuts on health care for the poor in the context of a budget hole that’s just as big as the one that shut down government for four hours in 2007.
Folks in Michigan want to know what’s going on. But how many journalists will be left to tell them?
(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write him at melinn@lansingcitypulse. com.)